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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.


Is over, but not really.  It won't ever be for me, as it was the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend last year that Hubby fell, never to recover.  He wouldn't want me to wallow in that, though, so I shall wallow in other non-personal thoughts about Thanksgivings.  I've written about the history of this holiday before, but reminders of its various versions never hurt.


As all true Floridians know, the first thanksgiving in what became America was at St. Augustine on September 8, 1565.  Priests conducted a Catholic mass of thanksgiving for the safe arrival of a fleet of ships carrying hundreds of people from Spain.  Led by Pedro de Aviles, they included women and children, soldiers and sailors, slave and free.  All were Catholic, and no one proclaimed freedom of religion or speech or any other rights not granted by the monarch's emissaries. 


After the mass, they probably dined on pork and garbanzo beans brought from Europe.  No food-bearing natives greeted these Spaniards, as natives around the St. Johns River had heard horrific tales from their kin to the south about these horse-riding, armor-laden warriors who sailed the sea on giant houses that waved white sails. For natives, it must have been like the arrival of fearsome UFOs.


These white people, including women, unsuccessfully attempted to settle Florida for decades.  From Ponce de Leon in 1518 to Panfilo de Narvaes in 1528; to 1539 and the monstrous Hernando de Soto; to 1549 and Father Luis Cancer with his female Mexican guide in Tampa Bay; and finally 1559 and Tristan de Luna in Pensacola.  (And btw, as we depart from these conquistadors, let me say that nothing should honor Hernando de Soto, the worst butcher of all.  Let's get on with renaming, beginning with Florida's Hernando and De Soto counties.)


The Pensacola settlement almost worked, but a hurricane reduced the settlers to starvation, and most returned to the Caribbean.  Others would arrive, though, and for centuries to follow, Spanish governments based in Pensacola and St. Augustine would send soldiers and priests to convert and enslave natives.  Yet for several reasons, especially the climate and the soil, slave-based agriculture did not work as well in Florida as in the Caribbean, nor as well as in the English colonies of Georgia and North Carolina.


Nevertheless, virtually all of the native peoples who once inhibited the peninsula disappeared within two centuries.  That means the Tequesta of Miami, the Matecumbe of the Keys, the Calusa of the Fort Myers area, Tampa's Tobago, the Ais on the middle of the east coast, the Timucuan to their north and west, and finally the Apalachee, the tribe most familiar to the English-speakers who eventually followed.  The most familiar today, of course, is the Seminoles, but that tribe did not emerge until the late 1700s.  Their name literally meant "runaway," as it was a collection of people who feared for their freedom – slaves or former slaves of both African and American Indian descent.


And neither they nor anyone else replicated the Thanksgiving on September 8, 1565.




Everyone likes to lay claim to the past, and one of my favorite political bloggers recently made a mistake in doing that.  She lives in Virginia and asserted that the first Thanksgiving was there, in 1607.   No, Virginia:  it is true that Jamestown started on its route to becoming the first permanently settled English colony that year, but there is no record of any thanksgiving.  Virginia was a decidedly non-religious colony almost entirely made up of male criminals and wannabe criminals.  The Virginia Company that sponsored its development was a for-profit corporation, and it was a selfish, mean, and nasty place.  I'm quoting from my 1997 book, Milestones:

·      1608:  Virginia – named for Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen who ruled over a Golden Age of English history until her death five years ago – receives the first English-speaking women to settle permanently in North America.  Anne Forrest, a married woman, and her 13-year-old maid, Anne Burras, join some 400 men.

·      1609:  In August, seven ships arrive at Virginia's Jamestown, with more than a hundred women aboard.  The colony's financiers initially offer them free land, but when they realize that such independence makes women unwilling to wed, the policy is cancelled.

·      Thereafter, about one in every three newcomers in the Southern colonies will be a woman.  Many are indentured (bound to a slave-like status until their fare is repaid), and men greet ships to pay debt and buy women as brides.  Although a "bound woman" could repay her indenture by working (usually for seven years), few suitable jobs are available, and the women encounter a great deal of pressure to marry.

·      1610:  Most of Jamestown's residents die during "the starving tyme" because the colony's men did not plan sufficient supplies to feed the newcomers through the winter.  Approximately 450 of 500 settlers die, and some resort to cannibalism.  Jamestown's Captain John Smith records that "a man die kill his wife…and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed.'


Meanwhile, far across the continent, Santa Fe was settled in 1609 by people who came from Mexico.  I'm sure that priests accompanied them, and they doubtless had a mass of Thanksgiving.  Spanish expeditions were well planned and strictly regulated by the government, with food quotas assigned to everyone.  To my knowledge, no one ever resorted to cannibalism.




It's not coincidental that communal New England educated its girls, while Virginia and Florida did not – nor even many boys.  The first colleges for women were in Massachusetts, and as the nation expanded, these schoolmarms went west and taught the Plymouth version of Thanksgiving – which is well-documented and real, including the peaceful presence of the local Wampanoag.


This standard version is accurate, except for failing to note the fate of the women.  Again, I'm going to quote myself, this time from the entry on "Pilgrim Women" in my 1994 Prentice Hall book, an A-Z of American Women's History.  It begins:  All Americans are aware of the hardships endured by the Mayflower's settlers, but few understand how vastly disproportionate women's sacrifices were compared with men.


One birth and one death occurred during their nine-week voyage, so the ship's register had 104 passengers on both departure and arrival.  Of these, 77 were male; 27 were female.  During their first wretched winter, half of the Pilgrims died – but that horrifying statistic for women was much worse.  Of the 18 adult women onboard, 14 would die within the first few months of landing, a fatality rate of 87%.  No combat unit sustains a greater mortality rate.


In contrast, only 6 of the 37 children died, for a 16% death rate in an era when much greater child mortality was routine.  The adult male fatalities fell between these extremes at 40%.  There seems no doubt that women starved themselves so that their children, and even their men, could eat.  Additionally, in an era when women could not control their reproductive cycles, at least three were heavily pregnant when they departed.  Oceanus Hopkins was born at sea; Peregrine White arrived while they lay at anchor; and Mary Norris Allerton's child died before christening; the mother died in February.


Sick and fearful of natives, they slowly sailed the coast of Cape Cod, finally landing at Plymouth on December 24, 1620 -- and women went ashore to do the laundry.  Except for possible defiance of the Church of England, this laundering on Christmas Eve had no significance, as pious Pilgrims rejected the era's "Deck the Halls" version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  For decades into the future, observation of Christmas would be a criminal offense. 


Thus the English holidays passed while the Pilgrims still suffered aboard the Mayflower.  Not until January 27 did they finally have enough people who were healthy enough to begin construction of a twenty-foot-square building.  It soon was "as full of beds as they could lie by one another," and in the bitter cold of a Massachusetts winter, death came almost daily.  Funerals were held under cover of darkness, lest natives see their weakened state. 


Instead of an attack, though, spring brought natives who came with food, and who taught the newcomers –primarily urbanities accustomed to servants -- how to fish and grow vegetables.  By then, only four adult women and eleven girls remained alive.  Susannah White, who had a five-year-old son as well as the baby born offshore, was a bride again after eleven weeks as a widow.  Fertility dominated women's lives, and in the spring, this tiny remnant of females "went willingly into the fields and took their little ones with them to plant corn." 


Nor have I ever read that they faulted their men for beginning a journey into the absolute unknown during the darkest, most dangerous time of the maritime year.  Let us give thanks for GPS, and for modern women strong enough to say, "What were you thinking?!"



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